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SAN FRANCISCO — In 1962, documentary photographer Diane Arbus switched from using a 35mm camera to a medium-format Rolleiflex, which offered higher resolution images in a distinctive square format. This equipment change coincided with developments in her practice that propelled her to international fame. Her work from the early 1960s through her death in 1971 is the most widely known and exhibited. In 2016, however, the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted diane arbus: in the beginning, an exhibition of more than 100 photographs from 1956 to 1962, many of which had never been shown before. An iteration of this exhibition is now on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), and the grainy 35mm photographs offer a glimpse of Arbus’s evolution as an artist, as well as a fascinating record of the time in which she worked.
For many years, Arbus collaborated with her husband, Allan Arbus, on a fashion photography enterprise. Diane was the art director and Allan the photographer; their work appeared regularly in Glamour and Vogue. Despite this success, in 1956 Arbus abruptly quit the editorial photography game and began walking the streets of New York with her 35mm camera. Many of these earliest works are in the style of a flâneur exploring her city with a bit of emotional distance between her and her subjects.
Viewing in the beginning as a documentation of a particular place and time, I was continually struck by two themes: youth and entertainment. More than any other photographs, those of children, teens, circuses, popular culture, and strip clubs transported me to mid-century New York. Arbus’s early works capture a time of great cultural transformation in the United States, and these subjects often illustrate the changing nation. In these works, one can also observe Arbus’s own transformation as she developed greater interest in subjects on the margins of society.
In one photograph from 1957, a young girl casts a sideways glance toward the photographer while perched on the edge of a sidewalk. She’s wearing a thick, knee-length coat and is holding a white handbag, which would be the focal point of the gray image if not for the conspicuous point in her hood. She looks like an urban Little Red Riding Hood, but with the street smarts to be suspicious of the person taking pictures of her. The girl’s outfit is old-fashioned enough to date the photograph, but the sea of grimy concrete surrounding the subject modernizes the image.
A 1960 photograph of a teenage boy posing in a pool hall is more directly evocative of the time it was made. The boy, not particularly imposing, faces the camera with cue in hand; the sleeves of his striped shirt are rolled up to his biceps. His mouth gapes slightly, positioning him somewhere between confused and posturing. Blurry apparitions of older men shoot pool in the background, and the glow of the overhead lamp obscures the top quarter of the image, but the photograph successfully depicts a dingy, poorly lit pool hall where this boy probably tested out his manhood in a manner fitting the time. The boy seems to straddle the line between “wholesome” American values and burgeoning, post-war youth subcultures, a fitting metaphor for the social changes the new decade would precipitate.
Among the more peculiar recurring motifs in the exhibition are television and film — not portraits of starlets and Hollywood bigwigs, but actual photographs of screens. Mighty Mouse and Bela Lugosi are the most notable subjects; the former dressed as a cowboy and the latter as Dracula. But the photograph of an unnamed blonde actress best represents these works: the surface area is primarily black, failing to capture most details on the screen. The actress is a blindingly radiant splash of light in the center of the image. These works aren’t Arbus’s strongest, but they are telling. They aren’t analogous to screenshots of contemporary actors and cartoons; instead, they convey the importance of these subjects to forming an understanding of the epoch in which she worked. These unusual photographs help construct a narrative about New York and America in the 1950s as places shaped by mass media and the allure of celebrity.
Arbus is more well known for her depiction of individuals working in other forms of entertainment, such as circuses, “freak shows,” and strip clubs. These interests are evident in in the beginning and contribute to an image of a certain kind of everyday life, albeit not the Norman Rockwell variety. A photograph of a “headless woman” — a body or mannequin completely covered in clothing with only legs and hands visible — is one of several that capture once-popular circus, carnival, and freak show attractions that have since fallen out of favor in this country.
Arbus’s images of strippers and drag performers, however, capture individuals practicing more timeless professions and art forms. Her subjects’ outfits, hairstyles, and dressing rooms give them specificity. In an image from 1961, an Atlantic City stripper donning a pompadour sits backstage in a room with cracked plywood walls and cheap wooden chairs. Topless, the woman looks at the camera unperturbed. This is one of Arbus’s first forays into the type of photographs she would make throughout 1960s, and the image is like a timestamp.
Beginning in the early 1960s, Arbus created work that demonstrated a more intimate relationship with her subjects and greater technical skill. She became more confident as a social observer. But she was not a neophyte when she made the work in in the beginning. These early images possess charm and earnestness, which are aided by her use of a 35mm camera to make them. Arbus’s early work constitutes a historical and sociological record of a very precise moment, seen through the eyes of a curious wanderer and a keen spectator.